Fading Music of the Darbesh

Kalachand derbash--Samir4

The Joydeb-Kenduli mela (fair), held every year in West Bengal’s Birbhum district on Makar Sankranti in mid-January is a gathering of wandering minstrels (Bauls, primarily) like no other in India. Gathering in almost equal numbers are lay aficionados addicted to the Baul and Fakir ways of life.

In 2003, young folk arts ‘conservationist’ (what else do you call an archivist, promoter, film music composer, documenter, filmmaker?) Deb Chowdhury was in Kenduli, as he is every year. But that year, he was on a mission, filming the performances of Kalachand Darbesh — the last of a rare breed of singers and philosophers, the Darbeshis.

Technically descended from the Sufi dervishes, Bengal’s Darbeshis are in a league of their own, because they incorporate elements of Vajrayana Buddhist principles as embodied in the Charyapada (8th-12th century), and the sahajiya principles of Sri Chaitanya’s Bhakti movement teachings.

“There is a tendency to club Darbeshis with Bauls,” says Deb, “but it is an entirely different way of life, as are Baul, Fakiri and Shain.” More than a mere musical genre, Darbeshi is a religion, one which encourages a follower to talk about ‘Allah’ and ‘idol’ in the same breath.

Kalachand is the last adherent of the faith. A former headmaster of Dhupguri Junior High School, the B.Com graduate chucked it all up in 1981 when he began his quest for nitya (permanence). That quest is still on, but the 75-year-old has, meanwhile, performed in 16 countries, been felicitated by the likes of Amartya Sen and Ustad Vilayat Khan, and been blessed by Pandit Ravi Shankar, who was ecstatic about the swaraj, the traditional Darbeshi accompanying instrument, which is also fading into oblivion.

Kalachand’s principal source of income is the alms (madhukari) that he collects by singing on local trains. While voluntary begging is a Darbeshi tradition, for Kalachand, it is a need, because all that he has by way of a supplementary income is Rs. 800 that he receives from the state government. When he needed treatment for a heart condition, it was Deb and friends, who run the Sahajiya Foundation in Kolkata, who arranged it. His biggest hope now: a Rs. 4,000 pension from the Ministry of Culture.

Kalachand’s voice breaks as he talks about his dying art, of his son who refuses to “sing beggar songs”, and of his quest for the “param guru”, but the mood lifts as he describes how William Wordsworth’s poem Daffodils revealed God to him, how William Shakespeare is actually a Baul because Romeo and Juliet are Krishna and Radha, and how, for his international performances, he has been regaling audiences with Darbeshi versions of Daffodils and Shakespeare’s sonnets.

He calls them the bard’s “English Baul” songs.

This article first appeared in the Hindustan Times on September 26, 2009. Photo courtesy Samir Jana


Cities of the Dead

A view of South Park Street Cemetery

Two men sit deep in discussion in a small, sparsely furnished office inside the South Park Street Cemetery (SPS), cups of tepid tea in front of them. Outside, the antique, silent tombstones stand cool under the shade of giant trees in the blazing noonday sun. The bustle of Park Street is a muted hum, nothing that the chirping of birds and squirrels cannot easily drown.

The men are Ranajoy Bose, executive member of the Christian Burial Board (CBB), and Dr Sudip Bhattacharya, a reader in the department of English, at Ramakrishna Mission Vidyamandira, Belur. And both are engaged in a task that has the potential to make the difference between survival and extinction for a large chunk of the city’s heritage – its colonial cemeteries.

Bose, a former member of Kolkata’s corporate circles, and Bhattacharya, who almost accidentally finds himself writing a book on Kolkata’s colonial cities of the dead, are united in one other respect: a fierce pride in their city’s past, and an urgent realisation that unless steps are taken now, cemeteries such as the ones on South Park Street and Lower Circular Road may well go the way that a few others of their kind have done – become irretrievably extinct.

“Outwardly, some of the cemeteries are in relatively decent condition, such as South Park Street, but without constant fund, maintenance and renovation, the existing tombstones will join those already ruined,” says the 41-year-old Bhattacharya. Bose adds, “South Park Street is one of the world’s oldest walk-through cemeteries, but not too many people in this city know that.”

As they take us on a guided tour of the eight acres of lush green land, Bose and Bhattacharya point out graves of historical significance. Mary Bowers, who died in 1781 after having survived the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta, young Rose Aylmer, a renowned beauty and the heroine of Walter Savage Landor’s poem of the same name, Sir William Jones, the celebrated Indophile, Sanskrit scholar, and founder of the Asiatic Society, and, of course, HLV Derozio, founder of Young Bengal and rebel extraordinaire.

A few blocks away, at the still operational Lower Circular Road cemetery, Bhattacharya points out an interesting fact. “You’ll find the graves of many American sailors here,” he says. “They came out on the ships that brought ice to Kolkata, which was stored in the old mint near Howrah Bridge. Clearly, the Europeans here had a weakness for natural American ice.” Interestingly, LC Road also houses the tomb of Rev Sudhir Chatterjee, a member of the IFA Shield winning 1911 Mohun Bagan team.

This is just one of his findings, one of the many that he has come across as he read up about the cemeteries and the people buried in them. “You know, I found out that when he first came out to India as a judge, Sir William Jones’ only priority was to save 30,000 pounds from his salary, which he calculated would take him six years, and then go back to England,” he smiles. “Without exception, Europeans came to this city to get rich. India was the pagoda tree for them.”

Bose adds, “When you look at the graves, you realise the enormity of Kolkata’s cultural diversity in the 18th and 19th centuries, and its tremendously cosmopolitan nature. As a Bengali, that is a source of great pride for me.”

Also significant among Bhattacharya’s findings is the fact that many of the deceased in these cemeteries died young, and of diseases as yet unknown to European medical science (the earliest death in SPS dates back to 1768). “On the one hand, they were forging an empire, and on the other, their doctors were trying to combat diseases for which they often didn’t even have names,” he says. So, with the cemeteries as his starting point, part of his agenda is to figure out the European plan of action in the face of the assault.

Neither is it possible to ignore the archaeological significance of SPS in particular. “This cemetery is probably unique in that it is a Christian cemetery with almost no crosses on the tombstones,” says Bhattacharya. “Instead, you have an explosion of Indo-Saracenic architectural styles that clearly indicate the influence of local builders and architects on the tombstones.”

A most remarkable example is the tomb of Maj Gen Charles ‘Hindoo’ Stewart, who converted to Hinduism and ritually bathed in the Ganges, though he was given a Christian burial. Modelled on Orissa temple architecture, his renovated tomb proudly attests to his flamboyant life and times.

Also clear is the economic significance of every burial. “Quite clearly, the more lavish tombstones contributed handsomely to the local economy,” says Bhattacharya. “An average tombstone would cost in the range of 900 sikka rupee (around 400 pounds). The more lavish ones could cost anything between 3,000 and 5,000 sikka rupees.”

At none of the other cemeteries, though, is one to find the level of renovation evident at SPS. As Bhattacharya and Bose both point out, the relatively happy situation at SPS is the result of the combined efforts of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia (BACSA), the CBB, and the Association for the Preservation of Historical Cemeteries in India (APHCI). Add to that the efforts of retired archaeologist A Bandopadhyay and botanist Dr KN Ghosh, and SPS has a relatively decent outlook.

“At both Lower Circular Road and SPS, we are planning a botanical map of the rare plants on the premises,” says Bose. “And both are also potential ‘carbon sinks’, or green zones that provide much needed pollution control.”

Clearly, though, it will take several years for the same efforts to reach the Maniktala cemetery, for instance, which houses the graves of the remarkable poetess and novelist Toru Dutt and her family. Though partially renovated recently, the graves are lying in the midst of appalling neglect and ruin, as are those at the Scottish Cemetery on Karaya Road. The Greek cemetery at Phoolbagan is in a happier condition, but strictly keeps visitors away.

Happily for the Scottish Cemetery, the Kolkata Scottish Heritage Trust has taken up its cause and is seeking to at least restore parts of the cemetery, to it former glory, as was done with SPS. ‘These cemeteries are clearly among our most important colonial relics,” says Bandopadhyay. “Every single grave is worthy of preservation.”

While those preservation efforts may have come too late for some cemeteries and tombs, Bose feels the only way forward is to make the cemeteries more tourist friendly, so that revenue generation is a possibility. “These tombs are a testament to the social, economic, and political conditions that have shaped our present. We ignore them at our peril,” he says.

This article first appeared in the Hindustan Times on November 27, 2011

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Song of the Road

Soft-spoken, unobtrusive, unassuming. That pretty much describes the poet-songwriter whose lyrics for the recently released Autograph seem set to start a movement. With phrases such as ‘chol rastay’ and ‘gia nostal’ rapidly gaining ground among the young brigade, Srijato is a name you’ll be hearing more of in future, a fact the poet himself typically tries to play down.

“The first soundtrack I wrote for was (Birsa Dasgupta’s film) 033,” he says, over a cup of coffee. “I was convinced I would fail, but Birsa wanted to try me. And once I found out I could actually write songs, it became easier to say yes to (director) Srijit (Mukherjee) and Debuda (composer Debojyoti Mishra) when they approached me for Autograph.

Watching his lyrics turn into Chol Rastay Saji Tramline, he says, was like watching straw turn into an idol. During our entire conversation, that’s about as poetic as he gets. His words are measured, his gestures minimal, his voice controlled, his humour wry. The impression is of a firmly grounded man, a man who focuses on the lyricism and romanticism of life’s ordinary, everyday realities, and expresses them in language accessible to everyone.

But that is what Gulzar has been doing for years for Hindi films, hasn’t he? Mention of the legendary poet-lyricist’s name moves Srijato to a state that actually resembles excitement. “How do I put this? Gulzar, for me, is a combination of Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan,” he says. “Quietly, entirely on his own, he has redefined film song writing.”

The other icon of Srijato’s life, evidently, is Kabir Suman. “His appearance was the Big Bang of Bengali music,” he says. “All creative efforts in Bengal since then owe him in some way.”

There’s something endearing about the way Srijato constantly negates his own rising fame, or the growing popularity of his edgy, irreverent, yet heartfelt poetry. Now in his mid-30s, he’s been writing poetry since his early teens, and despite close to 10 published volumes of poetry, one senses that he still feels a sense of surprise at the fact that publishers actually approach him for his works, or that his poetry actually finds readers.

“Of course, writing for films, one reaches a far wider audience,” he concedes. “But that’s about it. I never hang on to my works. The moment I handed over Chol Rastay to Debuda, I forgot about it. I wouldn’t want to be one of those people who change with fame. I’ve seen it happen too many times.”

As he talks, however, one realises that for all his seeming sensibleness, there’s a streak of eccentricity somewhere. From joking about how the ‘tramlines’ of his song are rapidly becoming history to describing how, on the eve of his BA Part II Geography examination, he ran away from home, there is an inherent quirkiness about him that constantly belies his appearance and demeanour.

“I’ve never believed in self-assessment,” he muses, as our interview draws to a close. “As I have grown older, my poetry has become more complicated, perhaps, and a little harder for me to get hold of, but, as (poet) Shankha Ghosh once said, ‘We have no history’.”

But he certainly has a future, with films like Parambrata Chatterjee’s Jiyo Kaka and a few others coming up. The tramlines may be vanishing, but the rasta (road) is getting wider.

This article first appeared in the Hindustan Times on November 20, 2010

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The Timeless Music Maker

Soumyojit Das, Stefan Stoppok, Sraboni Sen, Sourendro Mullick

As a youngster in Essen, Germany, in the 1960s, Stefan Stoppok laid hands on an album by sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, a name that Europe was beginning to wake up to, thanks to the Beatles. “I heard it often, and the music went deep into my heart. And in the early ’70s, Anglo-American musicians thought it cool to include Indian influences in their music,” he smiles.

In the 1980s, having started his musical career as a street musician, he went to form his own one-man band, Stoppok, in 1982, and shifted base to Bavaria. As he went on to become one of Germany’s foremost folk and rock guitarists and singer-songwriters, however, his connection to Indian music remained confined to the memories of his childhood and youth.

Now, the wheel has turned full cycle. For the past few days, Stoppok has been stationed in Kolkata, working on an album of Tagore songs along with noted Rabindra Sangeet exponent Srabani Sen, and musician duo You & i.. (vocalist Soumyojit Das and pianist Sourendro Mullick), who Stoppok met in Germany in 2005, and whose idea it was to invite him, on his first ever trip to India, to collaborate on the album as a guitarist and singer. Incidentally, Stoppok was a guest artiste on the duo’s debut album, Back to the Future (2009).

The experience has been a revelation. Sitting in Sourendro’s north Kolkata home, Stoppok gestures freely with his hands and consults his mobile phone dictionary as he hunts for the right words to describe Tagore. “He is so rooted in this area,” he says finally. “What is wonderful is the way everyone here knows him, and I find it exciting to reinterpret his music, without any idea of how listeners here will react.”

Sourendro and Soumyojit say that reinterpreting Tagore the composing genius is the biggest theme of the album. And the other USP is that all the tracks have been recorded live, in real time, in a brave departure from the mandatory mechanised studio recordings.

“Tagore’s music is so timeless and versatile that you can recreate his songs in a modern soundscape for a national audience, even if they don’t get the lyrics,” says Soumyojit. “And we opted for live recordings, as they used to be done in the past, because we didn’t want the lifelessness of computerised rhythms.”

“What I love about this project is that it connects the past with the present,” adds Stoppok. “As a musician, when I look beyond the boundaries that I know, the East is exciting because Anglo-American music has become too familiar. Tagore is a different taste.”

So Khorobayu Boye Bege has taken on a contemporary romantic pop sound, aided by guitar, electric piano, and a few notes of Raga Bilawal. Aj Jemon Kore Gaichhe Akash features “Bavarian percussion patterns”, says Sourendro, or Kaar Milan Chao Birohi, essentially a dhrupad in Raga Shree, is embellished with the electric piano and electric guitar, and a hint of the theme from Manihara, the Satyajit Ray classic. Then again, Brahms’s immortal lullaby, Guten Abend, Gute Nacht, has found a spiritual cousin, according to Soumyojit, in Amar Raat Pohalo.

But that isn’t all that has kept Stoppok busy. He has also been shooting for a music video in Kolkata along with filmmaker Sebastian Niehoff, for Tanz (Dance), a solo that he has composed. The video is themed on Stoppok’s street singer days, which required him to pose as a street singer in this city, too. “In Europe, street singing is a completely different culture, but people here actually started requesting Stefan for songs,” laughs Sourendro.

If the response to the Tagore album is anything close, Stoppok certainly won’t complain.

This article first appeared in the Hindustan Times on May 22, 2011

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With love, from us, to you

Distinctively yours... Aparna Sen

You & i.. in performance

A unique concept and a unique performance. That is an apt description of Lovingly Yours, a Valentine’s Day show based on love letters by famous people, staged at GD Birla Sabhagar on February 14.

Conceived by You & i.., the musical duo of Soumyojit Das and Sourendro Mullick, who also performed at the event, the show was also significant because it brought to the stage Aparna Sen, in a never-before appearance.
Also on the beautifully designed stage, in a cameo, was industrialist Harsh Neotia, who opened the show with a very competent reading of Gulzar’s translation of Shakti Chattopadhyay’s poem, Aj Shei Ghore.
The show essentially comprised Sen reading out the letters, chosen by Soumyojit and Sourendro, and the duo performing musical pieces to suit the mood of each letter.
It was interesting to note the combination of text and music, and though not all the letters were conventionally ‘romantic’, they clearly showed various facets of love.
While Sen did an outstanding job with the readings (particularly the letters from The Japanese Wife), musically speaking, worth a special mention were Tagore’s Ke Boshile, Tu Hi Re from the film Bombay, and a kirtan.
More such shows would be a welcome additon to the city’s cultural calendar.

This article was originally published in the Hindustan Times

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Rhythm Divine: Pandit Birju Maharaj

Acting it all out

He’s a small man, Pandit Birju Maharaj. If you’ve never met him face to face, that is one of the first things you are likely to notice about him. And yet, when he is dancing on stage, he seems to cast a shadow over it, so larger than life is his personality.

As we enter the modest room where the interview is to take place, India’s foremost Kathak legend is sitting cross-legged on the bed, in a simple blue kurta, and humming the Lata Mangeshkar classic, Rasik Balma. Once again, those who don’t know enough about the dance maestro will be taken by surprise at how well he sings.

And just in case you thought that was it, during the course of our conversation, the 72-year-old fishes out a notebook and, with childlike glee, shows us his pencil sketches of a jhalmuri wala, and a group of dancing children, made on the train to Kolkata. Oh, and he also writes poetry and composes music.

However, all of this, he insists, is secondary to the joy of teaching, something he has been doing since he was 13, trained by his father and guru, Achhan Maharaj. Also part of his lineage are his legendary uncles, Shambhu Maharaj and Lachhu Maharaj. “The way I see it, my values and skills should reflect in each and every one of my students,” he says, as his American ‘shagirda’ (disciple) Natalia, who sits in on the interview, nods vigorously.

There is a joy in watching Panditji speak, because the impeccable abhinaya (dramatisation) that he brings to each of his performances permeates his conversation as well. His eyes, his hands, his entire face and body, sketch graceful, intricate movements as he describes the joy that Radha and her sakhis feel when Krishna teases them, but the show of mock anger that they put on.

In between, the conversation takes in his students in countries as far apart as China and the USA, who have been propagating his uniquely contemporary version of Kathak, which remains true to tradition in many ways, and yet incorporates such ‘untraditional’ forms as satire, humour, and social commentary, emerging from the stereotyped Radha-Krishna ‘leela’.

Sadly, though not uniquely, his efforts to set up an academy have been in vain. Kalashram, his dance school in Delhi, is a two-room affair courtesy the municipality, where 250-odd students train. “This is not a degree diploma waali taalim, yeh anand waali taalim hai (they don’t train for a degree or diploma, they train for pleasure),” he smiles. “But I wish I had some help from somewhere. When I see the government rewarding sports stars, I sometimes feel, what of artistes? Not that I have anything against sports stars…”

On his return to Delhi, the maestro, who was in Kolkata to record for a private album, will begin rehearsing with his troupe of 400-odd dancers for the Commonwealth Games opening, assisted by son Deepak and daughter Mamta.

What of filmdom, and his compelling work in such films as Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi or Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas? “Haven’t received worthwhile offers, really,” he says, with a straight face. “Today, dancing in films is confined to the hips.”

So he will continue to travel the world, disseminating the “laya (rhythm) that God created”, teaching his students that each of us is born with rhythm. “There’s rhythm even in the way we breathe,” he beams.

This article was originally published in the Hindustan Times

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Mother Superior?

Mirror image

There’s a cacophony outside Nirmal Hriday, Mother Teresa’s ‘home for the destitute and dying’ in Kolkata’s Kalighat area, right next to its famed Kali temple. A ragtag bunch of children are clamouring for what they call chhoto coupon (small coupons). These prized scraps of paper make them eligible for an ‘outing’ the next day.

It is the morning of Mother Teresa’s 100th birth anniversary, and apart from the much-discussed outing, the children are also being treated to cakes and juice, consumed at lightning speed. In case we have missed the point, one of the kids gravely points to the photograph of the ‘saint of the gutters’ at the building’s entrance and says, ‘Boro ma’r janmadin’ (roughly, ‘it’s the senior mother’s birthday’).

As a beleaguered Missionaries of Charity (MC) nun tries to keep them under control and smile enquiringly at us at the same time, a shriek suddenly goes up: “Laash aschhe (corpse coming)!” In a trice, the doorway is forsaken, the children dispersing in all directions as one of the home’s inmates emerges from it for the last time, on a stretcher, mercifully shrouded, but still forcing us to shrink against the wall of the narrow passage.

As soon as the body disappears inside a van, though, the children are back. Business as usual. Inside, it’s business as usual, too, though there has been some effort to brighten the gloomy interiors with blue and white balloons, and the destitute and dying are dressed in colourful new clothes. Two nuns and a volunteer are in charge, and permission to speak to them or to the inmates is politely but firmly refused.

On the previous evening, at Mother House on AJC Bose Road, the mood is quiet, too. There’s almost nothing to indicate the significance of the day after. Near Mother Teresa’s deserted, unpretentious, nearly unadorned tomb, two Spanish volunteers shred marigolds and collect the petals in a carton, for “tomorrow’s decoration”. Lawyers from Madrid, the two women are also volunteers at an MC centre there.

Every day, between 1 pm and 3 pm, all MC centres take a break. At Mother House, nuns take it in turns to police the otherwise wide-open gate during this period, sifting through the constant stream of visitors — camera-wielding Japanese tourists, a chattering group of Anglo-Indians, bemused Americans, an argumentative journalist from Delhi — to decide whom to let in. The routine never varies, and the rigid sense of discipline and abhorrence for pomp is uniformly striking.

Emmanuel Biswas, a Bengali man in his mid-50s, limps in, takes off his shoes, heads for the tomb and prays audibly, almost weeping.

He’s a Protestant, he tells us later, but has been praying at the Catholic nun’s tomb ever since a debilitating stroke robbed him of normal movement. “What can I say about her? My sins are great, but she will forgive me,” he says.

On the official Missionaries of Charity website — operated by the California-based Mother Teresa of Calcutta Centre — there are 195 entries in a section that invites users to “report any favours or miracles received through the intercession of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta”.

Of course, 13 years after her death, Mother Teresa is an overwhelming presence at the institutions she founded. Both Mother House and Nirmal Hriday are overflowing with reminders of the woman who evoked love and distaste in almost equal measure during her lifetime.

Critics, led by Christopher Hitchens, accused her of accepting money for her mission from gunrunners, smugglers, fraudsters, and mass murderers. They demanded explanations about what she did with that money, ridiculed the Vatican’s rush to canonise her (a process that remains unfinished, hence ‘Blessed Teresa of Calcutta’ instead of ‘St Teresa’), accused her of abetting poverty rather than alleviating it, and were scathing about her decision to be treated at a California hospital rather than one of her own “primitive” medical facilities, where the caregivers supposedly depended on love and faith rather than medical training.

Today, in private conversation, former associates confirm what many suspect: despite her critics, Mother Teresa’s personal charisma went a long way in drawing attention to her order. That is not to say that the MC has stopped its work, or that there are any visible signs of decline (MC accounts have never been audited anyway), but, as one former donor says, “They won’t admit it, but there has been a 200 per cent drop in public interest in the MC.”

In similar vein is a comment by a young woman whose livelihood indirectly comes from Mother House —she ‘guides’ all the ‘lost’ foreigners who come in to the house as volunteers, and finds accommodation for them nearby, for a fee. Did she ever see Mother Teresa? No, her husband did. “Mother used to look after him and his brothers when they were children. She used to give them baths, meals…the sisters now are nothing like her,” she says.

Really? “Look at that pagla (lunatic),” she says dramatically, pointing to a homeless man lying on the pavement. “He’s been asking for some clothes for months now, and they won’t give him any. You think Mother would have tolerated it?”

Unfair, probably, given the rate at which the MC’s workload has gone up over the years.

And there’s nothing to show that the order minds the diminishing attention levels. A nun, who declines to give her name, says they love nothing better than to be left in peace. “We are only letting people in because of Mother’s centenary. All this attention is very distracting,” she says.

Nonetheless, attention from all corners of the world made the MC what it is. Today, its founder’s iconic status hasn’t eroded, but in death as in life, she seems to be surpassing the order that she founded, and the cult of the Blessed Teresa is alive and well. Is her life’s work as secure?

This article was first published in Hindustan Times on August 29, 2010

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